Feminist witchcraft is a later variant of modern witchcraft. It is now primarily associated with the work of Starhawk, an influential figure in feminist witchcraft, and has a strong political dimension.
Feminist witches often work with what they term ecstasy, rather than the feminine/masculine polarity, which is central to Gardnerian Wicca. Magical work for social change — to end patriarchal oppression — is also a predominant part of their rituals.
In the 1970s the women’s liberation movement produced a general critique of world religions, which, it was said, denied women’s experience. Two differing branches of feminist spirituality emerged: those keen to reform orthodox religions and those who looked to pre-Christian goddesses such as those celebrated in modern witchcraft. Ideas of the witch as a freedom fighter against patriarchy were used by American radical feminists.
According to Rachel Hasted, writing in the magazine Trouble and Strife (1985), the original WITCH (Women Inspired To Commit Herstory) group accepted ready-made “facts” about the witch-craze in Europe and claimed that nine million witches had been burned as revolutionary fighters against patriarchy and class oppression. They drew on the work of Jules Michelet, Joslyn Gage and Margaret Murray. Each of these writers had contributed to the idea that there was an underground movement of women’s spirituality, originating from matriarchal times, which had been suppressed.
The French historian Jules Michelet’s La Sorciere (1862) had interpreted witch hunters’ records as a massive peasant rebellion and rejection of Christianity in which pagan priestesses led a doomed peasants’ revolt against the oppression of a Christian ruling class. Matilda Joslyn Gage, a radical leader of the US suffrage movement, had argued in Woman, Church and State (1893) that witchcraft and the occult were a form of knowledge that was based on the worship of a female deity which had been outlawed by a jealous patriarchy. Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) had claimed that European witchcraft was an ancient pre-Christian fertility religion, which had survived among the peasantry.
Feminist witchcraft’s mythical origins lie in a golden woman-centred age before patriarchal religions came to dominate both women and nature. Judaeo-Christian traditions were seen to have deepened the split, finally establishing a duality between spirit and matter. Women became identified with matter, nature, the body, sexuality, evil and the Devil, and had to be controlled, while the male God was uncontaminated by birth, menstruation and decay and was removed to the realm of the spirit.
Feminist witchcraft, in common with Wicca, has a holistic vision of the world: the Goddess is seen to link people with nature; she is seen to be within every human being and her worship involves celebrating life: she is associated with renewal and the regeneration of life.
The origins of Goddess-worship are traced to ancient, peaceful, egalitarian cultures where the change of seasons and lunar and solar cycles were experienced as mystic bonds linking humanity with nature. Much of this feminist reinterpretation of witchcraft is based on the work of the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who attributed a single religious system of Goddess-worship to both palaeolithic hunter-gatherers and neolithic farmers and horticulturists. Gimbutas claimed that when food-gathering gave way to food-producing, leading to a settled way of life, there was no corresponding change in the religious symbolism — the Goddess ruled throughout.
According to Gimbutas, this peaceable old European culture was overrun by violent patriarchal invasions between 4300 and 2800Bc. The anthropologist Ruby Rohrlich disagrees with this view and points to the earliest civilizations in Sumer, Egypt, India and China, and also the societies of the Incas and the Aztecs, claiming that they gradually transformed themselves from peaceable, women-centred enclaves into warring, stratified cultures.
She argues that the changes were made from within rather than by patriarchal invaders from without. Nevertheless, the idea that there was a peaceful, Goddess-focused, pre-patriarchal society is very common among feminist witches.